The golden age of the television horror movie (aka the 1970s) pre-dates me, but I’ve managed to go back and watch enough of these little gems that I have a good sense of what they were all about, and how delightful they could truly be. They tended to be low-budget and quickly made productions, but a lot of them were crafted by serious-minded technicians who knew how to work around that sort of thing. There’s real gold buried and forgotten back there. I don’t just mean the notable titles we’ve all heard of—sure, Steven Spielberg made Duel, and OK, Guillermo Del Toro was so afraid of those little monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark that he produced a remake. But what about Shelley Winters and Morgan Fairchild terrorizing a psychic sorority girl in The Initiation of Sarah? What about that, huh?
If you’re like me and have a warm place in your heart for that sort of old-fashioned low-budget cheese where under-utilized actresses get to let loose and have some cornball spooky fun, or if you’d like to have a warm place for such things, then I can easily recommend Axelle Carolyn’s The Manor to you. Starring the always-welcome Barbara Hershey (one of our great unheralded Scream Queens, from The Entity in 1982 all the way up through the Insidious films) as a stroke survivor who gets dropped into the retirement community from hell, this is part of the new “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series of horror double-features that are hitting Prime Video this month, and the whole thing vibes real hard on those vibes I just described. Sure, it won’t be pushing The Exorcist off its blood throne any time soon, but it’s got old folks smoking doobies and dancing like devils in the woods, and where’s the harm in that? I see nothing but good clean fun for the whole mutant family.
Hershey plays Judith, whose recent small stroke has her doubting her own faculties on the verge of her 70th birthday, even though outwardly she seems plenty with it and in charge. It turns out that she’s so sharp she decides she can see the writing on the wall her own dang self, thank you, and checks herself into a facility where they can take care of her when her eventual decline takes hold. Her grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) thinks she’s being ridiculous, but she’ll hear none of it—she has no desire to be anybody’s burden, especially not his after he lost his father at a young age. So she goes to the Golden Sun Manor, a well-rated and respected top-of-the-line establishment housed in a beautiful old mansion with plenty of surrounding nature to enjoy. Judith is determined to be in control of her own destiny.
Now, stop me if you’ve heard this one before—turns out that everything in Golden Sun Manor is not what it seems! As soon as Judith’s relatives leave, things start getting a little weird. They confiscate her phone, they won’t let residents out onto the property without a nurse accompanying them, there are weird little burned spots on the lawn, and Judith’s semi-comatose roomie keeps breaking out into shrieks whenever the resident black kitty cat comes round. Still, Judith manages to make some fast friends with the hip fun-loving popular trio in the home (led by Bruce Davidson doing his best Kenny Rogers impersonation), and they briefly manage to play the part of your favorite Live-Laugh-Love crowd in every prescription medicine commercial ever made.
But then the nightmare hallucinations kick in. Judith keeps seeing some sort of monstrous woody figure in the room at night, hovering near that shrieking roomie of hers. And the more paranoid Judith gets, the less amiable the staff seems. Caught in a feedback loop where her sanity only keeps making her look less sane, Judith’s arc isn’t exactly a new one. Every asylum movie ever made has been here, and done this. But the setting here, among the aging Boomer crowd insisting they’re fine, fine, perfectly fine, while they leave a trail of devastation behind them, well it’s pointed, I thought! In a good way. The presence of Judith’s impeccably earnest grandson, who does everything within his power to believe Grandma for as long as he possibly can, only further cemented The Manor for me as a low-key riff on generational relations very specific to our exact moment in time.
I am perfectly willing to admit that I am maybe being too generous with the film. It’s more goofy than it ever is scary, feeling at times like geriatric Goosebumps. But for some reason, maybe it’s the early October whiffs of pumpkin spice and plaid blankets in the air, I enjoyed my time with this trifle and think maybe you will too. If you go into it expecting the sort of light amusement where you spill some cocoa from laughing at a silly little jump scare, and not anything that will leave a deep mark on your permanent psyche, that is. Less Duel, more Shelley Winters. I’ve been wanting that exact thing for years myself, anyway!
The Manor is streaming on Prime Video starting October 8, 2021.
Header Image Source: Prime Video/Blumhouse